A middle-aged milquetoast discovers life with a vengeance in British novelist Graham Greene’s sly frolic, “Travels With My Aunt,” a Los Angeles premiere at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.
Tending his beloved dahlias seems less satisfying to the quiet, retired bank manager Henry Pulling, after Aunt Augusta shows up at his mother’s funeral. Alternately repulsed and fascinated, Henry learns that the 75-year-old, free-spirited grande dame lives above a pub, lustily cohabits with a young West Indies-born scoundrel named Wordsworth, carries a torch for an Italian war criminal and engages in skullduggery of her own.
She also harbors a secret — soon apparent to the audience, though not to Henry — having to do with Henry’s prim and proper mother and the seemingly unknowable stranger that was his late father.
Like Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame, Aunt Augusta adheres to the “life’s a banquet” philosophy. She rattles Henry’s staid existence until, too dazzled and intrigued to resist, the desire for adventure fizzes in his veins, sending him on a picaresque journey from Paris to Paraguay.
Urged on by his aunt and her insistence that her plodding nephew must have something of his “hound” father in him, Henry encounters smugglers and a CIA agent, smokes pot with a teenage hippie, offends a military dictator, loses sight of his moral compass with little regret and feels “oddly elated to be alive.”
Directed with taut precision by David Dean Bottrell, Giles Havergal’s Olivier Award-winning adaptation of Greene’s 1969 novel efficiently assigns four actors multiple roles. Played without regard for gender, race or ethnicity, they are performed with virtuosic verve by a superb cast: Thomas James O’Leary and Mark Capri as Henry and Aunt Augusta, respectively, and Larry Cedar and Sybyl Walker, who enliven assorted male and female eccentrics with vivid individuality.
O’Leary, serving as narrator as well, deftly nuances Henry’s slide away from the societal norm and his transformation from observer to participant. Mark Capri gives his indelible Aunt Augusta the stately, slightly off-kilter presence of a debauched Margaret Dumont. Highlights among Cedar and Walker’s colorful roles are Cedar’s comic turn as Wordsworth, deepened with a touch of pathos, and Walker’s subtle menace as jolly war criminal Visconti.
Inevitably, Henry’s intoxicating sense of being alive in the world bashes up against unsavory reality. Willful ignorance, it turns out, has its price. Although the shift from comic to dramatic tenor is too abrupt, this fateful turning point, delicately finessed by director and actors, is chill with the whiff of amorality.
Production values are top-flight, from Sherry Linnell’s character-revealing menswear touches to lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg’s atmospheric illuminations and Cricket S. Myers’ illustrative sound. Michael C. Smith’s outstanding set design is a visual feast of packing crate platforms, stacked suitcases serving as stairs and vehicles, framed travel posters doubling as windows and an applause-worthy quick-change flip that transforms a table from tea time to cocktail hour. Henry’s dahlia garden is one of several comic flourishes.
What: “Travels With My Aunt”
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.
When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 18. $20-$42.
Info: (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15 or www.colonytheatre.org.
LYNNE HEFFLEY is a Los Angeles-based freelance arts writer and theater reviewer.
You won't want to miss this 'Aunt'
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